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NBA Daily: Kings on the Upswing Despite Questionable Decisions

The Kings are this season’s breakout team, but they made questionable decisions on their path to this point, writes Matt John

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Through most of their NBA existence, the Sacramento Kings have been on the receiving end of many jokes around the league. The franchise has only made the playoffs 10 times since the team moved from Kansas City in 1985, and haven’t made the postseason since 2005. As it stands right now, that currently is the longest drought out of every team in the NBA.

If this season for the ages continues, that may not be for much longer. The Kings currently stand at 19-16, which places them eighth in the Western Conference playoff race. They are young, fun, and easy to root for. When you think about the franchise’s rocky history, it’s hard not to be happy for them when they win.

But what changed? The best players they added in the offseason were Marvin Bagley III, who’s been fine for a rookie, and Nemanja Bjelica, who’s been about as fantastic as Nemanja Bjelica can be.

They’ve done their part, but the Kings’ success can be attributed primarily to the electric play of their key prospects, such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein.

These players have put the Kings in the spotlight for the first time since Vlade Divac was an active player for Sacramento. It’s good to see that the Kings have righted themselves, but the way in which Divac acquired the three aforementioned players may not be as clever as it looks.

The reason why the Kings have Fox is because of the trade they made with the Philadelphia 76ers three years ago in which they dumped several long-term contracts – Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, and Nik Stauskas – as well as two pick swaps (2016 and 2017) and an unprotected first-round pick this coming season for cap room.

This move drew inspiration from when Golden State traded Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, as well as two first-round picks and two second-round picks to Utah to sign and trade for Andre Iguodala in 2013. The difference being that Golden State made that trade knowing that a valuable commodity like Iguodala was coming. The Kings made that trade with no assurances that anyone was coming.

Divac made that deal hoping he would land a big-time free agent but ultimately failed to do so. The move has suddenly worked out because the Kings swapped picks with the Sixers that year, going from third to fifth, which they used on Fox. The Sixers traded the third pick, along with what will now be a top-1 protected pick to Boston for Markelle Fultz, who has gotten off to a rough start in the NBA.

The reason why the Kings have Hield is because of the trade they made with the New Orleans Pelicans for DeMarcus Cousins. Management had been infatuated with Hield for a while, and trading Cousins seemed inevitable since the Kings had not made any progress towards the playoffs with him.

The problem was not trading Cousins or acquiring a prospect like Hield. It was that the Kings waited too long to trade DeMarcus, and hence, could only settle for Buddy when they could have acquired much more. Still, the move has worked out since Hield has come alive in his second full year with the Kings, and Cousins is no longer in New Orleans.

Speaking of Cousins, the reason why the Kings have Cauley-Stein is pretty simple. They drafted him seventh overall in the 2015 draft. He wasn’t a reach by any means but drafting a center when your best player plays the exact same position sends mixed messages. Especially considering what transpired afterward.

Cousins remained on the team for another year and a half, which got in the way of WCS’ progression as a player, not to mention confused everyone on what the Kings were trying to accomplish. Since then, even if his progress as a player was a bit slow to begin with, Cauley-Stein has come along quite nicely.

All of these moves were met with significant skepticism. But if these moves have played a huge part in the Kings having a brighter outlook than they’ve had in over a decade, does the franchise deserve major credit for them?

One way to answer that question would be looking at some of the moves that the Milwaukee Bucks have made over the past couple of years.

In a way, the Bucks are in a similar boat to the Kings in that they’ve taken a major leap this year. Unlike the Kings, who went from doormat to decent, the Bucks have gone from the league’s most frustrating underachiever to contenders.

Much emphasis needs to be put on what the Bucks had previously been up until this season. Since Giannis Antetokounmpo came into the fold, the Bucks have always been the team that seemed to have all the pieces but could never put it all together. They certainly had their moments. They even made a few playoff series interesting, but there seemed to be something holding them back.

Seeing how they’ve picked up the pieces this season, it’s fair to pinpoint that the one thing(s) holding them back was their questionable personnel decisions. In complete contrast to the Kings, these personnel decisions were lauded when they first happened.

First was drafting Jabari Parker. Parker came out of a pretty successful freshman year out of Duke University, with many believing that his scoring ability made him the most likely of his fellow classmates to become a star. When the Bucks selected him second overall in the 2014 draft, many believed that he and Giannis Antetokounmpo would take over the East for the next decade.

Scouts weren’t wrong about Parker’s scoring ability. He’s never scored less than 12 points a game and was putting up 20 a night during his third year. Even with that, Parker flopped in Milwaukee because of two reasons: Injuries and lackluster defense.

It’s not on Parker nor the Bucks that he tore the same ACL twice in his first three seasons in the NBA. What is on Parker is his unwillingness to improve his individual defensive abilities. Because of that, a lot of Parker’s contributions on offense was negated by his defense, leading to a mutual parting of the ways.

Tough cheese to swallow since Parker was a high lottery pick, and was selected over Joel Embiid. Even if the Bucks never would have done that with Embiid’s injury risks and the Bucks investment in Larry Sanders, imagine him and the Greek Freak as teammates.

Next was hiring Jason Kidd as head coach. Kidd was one of the most brilliant point guards to ever grace an NBA court and was coming off a successful playoff run for a rookie head coach in Brooklyn. The Nets made it to the second round of the playoffs, and they did it despite missing their best player – Brook Lopez – through most of the season.

Putting Kidd with some of the NBA’s top young talent was a no-brainer, but Kidd was never able to put everything into place. He wasn’t a total disaster, as the Bucks made the playoffs twice in his coaching tenure (three times if you count the year he was fired mid-season), but the Bucks’ recent success with Coach Budenholzer suggests that Kidd was not the right man for the job.

Last was signing Greg Monroe to a near-max deal. At the time, Monroe was 25 years old, was averaging a near double-double throughout his entire career, and had played behind Andre Drummond in Detroit. Now that he was the featured center, he was destined to break out in Milwaukee.

Monroe’s expected break out never really happened because his fit was awkward and the NBA was turning more towards spacing, versatility and two-way players. Monroe could not provide any of those qualities. He definitely could definitely fill the stat sheet, but his deficiencies downgraded him into a sixth man. He wasn’t bad for the Bucks. He just wasn’t the guy you wanted to invest $15+ million into.

Every single one of these moves backfired in Milwaukee, and it definitely played a role in why they hadn’t figured things out until now. However, at the time they were announced, everybody thought the moves they made were brilliant. They may not have worked out, but anyone would have done the same had they been in the Bucks’ shoes.

All of this points to that no one really knows how beneficial or how costly any move is until we see how it affects the franchise in the long-term, which makes the label “incompetence” a little muddy. In hindsight, there are probably some things both Sacramento and Milwaukee would do differently knowing what they know now, but that doesn’t mean they regret bringing in or getting rid of their personnel.

What matters now is that what’s done is done, both have learned from their mistakes, and they’re smarter for it.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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